Friday, December 31, 2010

Get Real, Jonny

There are those [parp] in the fishing party that go to catch fish, and I've long known that I'm not one of them. Sure I know the disappointment of not catching - I don't go for the scenery - but grassing a fish isn't the whole of why I'd make a 12 hour round trip. I want a fish so bad I'll go to Costco. Anyway, I wasn't going to do well on this December trip to the Salmon River, Pulaski. I'd been told, by people who know, that I'd need to face the music of real winter steelhead fishing; hour after hour of nothing but sweaty neoprenes, frostbite and hurt.

We stayed at a place acknowledged loosely as a "lodge" high above the pools we'd fish the first of our two days. Through the snow to the Honey Hole, we were delighted to see no-one there and expectations were high, if within context for late December when everything gets tougher. A more delightful looking pool you'd be hard pressed to find; a fish-holding funnel bisected by an island leading to a long riffle and thence to a slow, wide and deeply fishy looking pool; ample room for 3 anglers. Fish just had to hold here, I thought.

The Honey Hole 

Four hours later I had given up on my stealthy approach to the near-side lies and was wading deeply to cover the light-water-to-dark seam on t'other side of the river. By this time - 3pm - we weren't full of expectation and I shouted over to Steve to take an artsy picture of me deep wading, such is my want to capture "The Experience". He was making ready the camera when the fish took (I said "fish on", so I must be an American now). A heavy take and boil on the surface, and I had the immediate impression of a big, bright fish. After initial thumping aerials, the fish tore off down stream and stopped, tight. But as Steve training the camera, a further jump and run and the long line came back limp, with no prospect of a switch back run. She'd taken my black/green stonefly. I can say I wasn't terribly happy.

I still don't know if it's better to hook a fish and lose it, or to hook none. The disappointment of not hooking is hard to take, but at least the odds don't change. With a loss already under my belt, any more bereavement this trip and I'd politely ask Steve to stop the Jeep at the first bridge on the drive back. "Cheerio fellas". For now I vowed to swap 8lb test for 10lb for the next and final day.

Fresh Pulaski Cod 'n Slaw. When the waitress asked where we wanted to sit, Steve was so tired he pleaded with her to simply provide "a chair"!

The second day was rubbish for a while. Despite losing a fish on the first, we'd had a beautiful pool all to ourselves, and it was wonderful fishing even if the fish weren't playing. I don't like crowds. There's enough to go wrong that I'm responsible for without some imbecile adding to the mix. I guess I just don't like conveyor-belt fishing, and on this river it seems you can fish in isolation if you walk. So we did. And found more people clogging up the glassier water that can be productive in late season. Despite the prospect of yet more snow trudging, Steve and I ventured further down-stream, and after carefully fording the river, we were fishing the pool where we'd hooked countless steelhead in November.

But the water looked all too fast now, and after an hour or so of diligent casting, we called it quits and started the long walk up-river, only to meet Bill and [farts] walking down. A con-flab ensued and all agreed that the fishing sucked a bag. What to do. Up or down. To squeeze into frog water up above us (I didn't fancy this with my indicator-less heavy metal approach) or walk even further down to uncharted territory with the prospect of a much longer walk out at dark. 

Let's stand here and think about it. Then Bill has the answer.

Downstream we headed once again and we spread out, Bill and [toot, toot] fishing the November run, Steve at the bend, and yours truly playing cast and step through the sexy run below.

Steve's round the bend.

It must be 1pm. The day's running away, and then a shout from above: Steve's hooked and dropped a fish. Good, ish. Keep throwing the lead up river. Keep chucking. Then everything changed: complete, unadulterated pandemonium as a hefty steelhead lifts the stone from the river bed and shows on the surface before belting downstream. Holding on is all I can do. I'm on my own with this one and I can't follow the fish - water's too deep near side. She comes opposite me and feels heavy. A jump then she's motoring way down, cartwheeling across the river again. Big flanks those. If there's a better feeling than this you can keep it, but I'll lose this fish I say to myself. There's too much backing out, but she slowly comes toward me and now opposite for the second time. Confidence comes back. I remember the 10lb Maxima and start to angle firm pressure towards the bank. Then that moment comes when she has more earth than water beneath, and I'm jelly.

The bright hen of c.13lb. Clearly full of Christmas Pudding. 

It feels remarkable to catch a good fish after yesterday's loss. And on my own silly little fly. Some black Estaz, a bit of goose biot for a tail, and some hot orange thread for focus.

Steve comes down and is typically gracious with his congratulations and back slapping. A drift boat joins us in the pool with reports of fish on Wooly Buggers earlier in the day, but slow since. Our fishing recommences and Steve hooks another fish, but like the one before it and a final one after,  it splutters on the surface and is gone in a trice (we later decide we don't like this immediate spluttering and ponder what can be done with leader and technique to avoid it). I switch to a hideous Bugger - chartreuse and bright orange with hackles as long as my whiskers - and it is savagely taken on the dangle by a smaller cock fish, which takes high to the air to whoopin' excitement from the drift boat gallery. What a ride! Two more high arcing jumps and I have the 6lb male on the bank, again the 10lb nylon giving confidence, real or not, to take the upper hand. So much for 6lb tippet.

A darker fish, but no less fresh in the fight.

Bill, Steve and [Splarp] in the good water. The bank on right is where I landed two fish. 

 Beautiful winter isolation.

I used to shoot driven pheasants. At each drive the guns select pegs at random to decide who stands where. The wind has its say, but the hope is for birds spread evenly across the guns, but of course you can find yourself completely out of the shooting as the Long Tails go everywhere but overhead. Sometimes it evens itself out and all the guns share sport. Sometimes one son of a bitch gets lucky. It'll even out over a season or two, fellas, but for now I'll take the good fortune until we can get back to Pulaski.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Report Card

It's been an excellent year on the water: early spring brookies, the local striper run, wonderful carp fishing and a steelhead trip that may never be topped. Here's a film that captures some of the good bits.

Thank you to Andrew, Steve, Todd, Bob, Bill, Steve Z, Charlie, Chris, Don, Val, and all those that I'm fortunate to fish with and who helped take the photos and videos here. Thanks to my wife and kids...I forget their names....for doing without me. And most of all to TJ Brayshaw for guiding me towards the slurp.

The music is by Badly Drawn Boy and, shame my soul, a little Oasis.  I think they fit, but you'll be the judge.

Merry Christmas friends!


Friday, December 3, 2010

Mother Tongue

Everyday I'm reminded that I live in a foreign country, and this is reasonable, because I do live in a foreign country. There are clear similarities between the UK and the US, of course, and perhaps nowhere more so than here in New England. The most obvious difference though, aside from the clear disparity in skill and care in driving automobiles [note to fishing friends: this does not apply to any of you], is in our respective language, even when referring to fishing or other country pursuits. Where you have fishing holes, we have pools, for example. A male pheasant or salmon is called a cock in the UK (the opposite of a hen, which America chose to retain), but a buck in the US. Your Chickadees are tits to me.

Bill Bryson wrote wonderfully about the evolution of this Transatlantic difference in his book Mother Tongue, and I had a similarly enriching dialogue with an American friend just yesterday that I wanted to share. In this example we were discussing my theory that, in the US, perhaps a certain prudish morality had helped shape common terms in America today?

"Yes", my friend agreed, "it would make more sense for us to call them cocks since we still call the females hens (and not does). But your explanation, while logical, is historically incorrect. The name change actually happened back in 1887, when Bob Griswold I, known to locals as "Bait rodder", rolled into town with a burlap sack full of dozens of dead, male steelhead, and shouted at the top of his lungs "Bag of cocks!! Bag of cocks!!! I caught me a bag of cocks!!"

"In an effort to out do him, many other fisherman began keeping large numbers of male steelhead.  It became common to greet somebody at the local store with "Get your bag of cocks yet?". The effect on the steelhead population was, of course, entirely predictable. The numbers crashed, and managers, finally wise to basic ecology, instituted new conservation measures around 1937. Initially, anglers were slow to cooperate, but when, at the request of fisheries managers,  Bob Griswold II (aka "Spin rodder"), son of Bob Griswold I, stopped referring to male steelhead as cocks and instead as "bucks", populations recovered. A few anglers, in an effort to keep the old ways alive, would occasionally arrive with their "bag of bucks", but all agreed it just wasn't the same, and soon the tradition died out. In an interesting linguistic twist of fate, the term "bag of cocks", once meant to convey pleasure and success, was eventually corrupted so that the term now means, quite ironically, the exact opposite. Up until about 1925 or so, for example, it was not at all uncommon to hear people, anglers and non-anglers alike, describe something as being "better than a big back of cocks". The term might be used to describe a new car, as in "This here beauty runs like a dream and is prettier than a bag of cocks." Or a woman might say to her husband "Dear, I love you like I love a big bag of cocks", and he would swell with pride. But within a decade or two, as you well know, the phrase did a 180 degree turn, so that now, one might say, for example, upon returning from an unsuccessful striper foray, "Well, that sucked a big bag of cocks." 

Brayshaw and a male (buck, or cock) sucker

Many modern day anglers, totally unappreciative of the richness of angling lore and tradition, are completely unaware of the irony of their modern usage of the phrase. And of course readers won't need to be told of the "double irony" of the fact that the term was revitalized primarily by our good angling friend Bob Griswold IV, aka "flyrodder", great-grandson of baitrodder.

EJ, with historic perspective - the good bits - by TJ.